Alpaca has an extensive and very interesting history in South America with exceptional breeding and processing by the Inca. The Mitchell family have been involved in alpaca in Peru since the 1920's and set up a mill in 1931 to process the fibre and export the tops and yarn. In the West the story is also extremely interesting and one can only wonder where all the technology has gone over the last 100 years.
Sir Titus Salt (20 September 1803 – 29 December 1876) is probably the grandfather of alpaca outside of South America. He was a manufacturer, politician and philanthropist in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England and he saw the potential of alpaca in creating luxury fabrics.
After working as a wool-stapler (buyer, cleaner and seller of raw sheep wool) in Wakefield, he became his father's partner in the business of Daniel Salt and Son. The company used Russian Donskoi wool, which was widely used in the woollens trade, but not in worsted cloth. Titus visited the spinners in Bradford trying to interest them in using the wool for worsted manufacture, with no success, so he set up as a spinner and manufacturer. In 1836, Titus came upon some bales of Alpaca wool in a warehouse in Liverpool and, after taking some samples away to experiment, came back and bought the consignment. Records are rather scant about where these bales came from and why they were there in the first place. Although he was not the first in England to work with the fibre, he was the creator of the lustrous and subsequently fashionable cloth called 'alpaca'. (The discovery was described by Charles Dickens in slightly fictionalised form in Household Words).
In 1833 he took over his father's business and within twenty years had expanded it to be the largest employer in Bradford. In 1848 Titus Salt became mayor of Bradford. Smoke and pollution emanated from mills and factory chimneys and Salt tried unsuccessfully to clean up the pollution using a device called the Rodda Smoke Burner. He was the first person to attempt pollution management as well as the first to limit working hours and improve working conditions. Around 1850, he decided to build a mill large enough to consolidate his textile manufacture in one place, but did not want to compound the already polluted area, so bought land three miles from the town in Shipley next to the River Aire, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Midland Railway and began building in 1851. He opened it with a grand banquet on his 50th birthday, 20 September 1853, and set about building houses, bathhouses, an institute, hospital, alms-houses and churches, that make up the model village of Saltaire. A few samples books of his extraordinary alpaca cloth still exist and are held at the museum in the town of Saltaire. Unfortunately, no technical information regarding his technique has been found.
There are two species of domesticated Andean camelids, the alpaca and the llama, and two non-domesticated ones, the guanaco and the vicuna. Alpacas and the other South American camelids began domestication some 6000 years ago in the Central Andes, a process that culminated with shepherding and the appearance of diverse breeds towards 3500 BC. Almost all the pre-Inca Cultures, used camelids for their nourishment and clothing.
The Inca culture developed and maintained systematic camelid breeding programs, including selecting and separating flocks of alpacas according to their colours and characteristics. Archaeological evidence suggests that alpacas were worshiped in Inca society, and native legends identified the alpaca as a gift from Pachamama, the Earth Mother - a gift loaned to humans for only as long as they were properly cared for. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in South America, the Inca culture was shattered and alpaca were slaughtered by the thousand – some accounts suggest 90% of the carefully managed herds. A culture which had developed and sustained its self for thousands of years was irreparably damaged and the exceptional fibre bred by the Inca and seen on alpaca mummies and in cloth woven at the time is a dream aspired to by many alpaca owners and breeders today.
The llama is the most common, largest and strongest of the Andean camelids. The llama has elongated legs, neck and face, and may reach as high as 1.9 meters from the ground to its head. Its long ears are erect and curve inward in a classic banana shape. As a pack animal, the llama can carry a weight of about 40 kg for long journeys, and up to 60 kg on short ones. The llama's average weight as an adult is 115 kg.
The alpaca has a smaller and more curved silhouette than the llama. Alpacas come in over twenty recognized colours and reach a height of 1.5 meters and weigh about 65 kg. A new-born alpaca known as a cria, weighs about 7 kg. The alpaca's gestation period averages 340 days. Alpacas generally have more fibre than llamas, producing anywhere from 1.5 to 5 kg per year although not all of this fibre is prime fleece.
The alpaca has two recognized breeds. The Huacaya alpaca has a dense, fluffy fleece covering almost all its body. The Suri alpaca possesses lanky, silky and long fibre that hangs in curly locks from its sides, and may reach a length of 15 cm.